In my quest to experience the finest mud-free festivals around I recently found myself in Madeira, Portugal’s remote island out in the Atlantic Ocean. I was there to learn a thing or two about fine dining and food festivals at Rota das Estrelas – which translates less beautifully as “The Stars Route” – a gastronomic and culinary adventure featuring some of the very best chefs from Portugal and Europe.

I am neither a food blogger nor a die-hard “foodie” – I’m as happy with street food as I am a tasting menu – but I am very interested in festivals, particularly the more unusual festivals that aren’t all about tents and music! And with food festivals being amongst the most traditional, most well-established and popular festivals happening all over the world, I figured it was about time I learned a thing or two about them. I already had a long list of questions that needed answering;

Why do people go to food festivals?

Do you need to be a “foodie” to appreciate them?

Do you need to be a wannabe Masterchef to really understand the dishes being prepared?

Are food festivals worth the price tag? (Tickets to Rota das Estrelas events ranged from 90 – 120 Euros, though there were a number of free to attend events happening in Funchal during the festival.)

Do all chefs really swear like Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen?

Rota das Estrelas

And if I had to force down a delicious dish or twenty in aid of research, then so be it. Which is just as well because that’s pretty much what happened during my three days at the Rota das Estrelas in Madeira’s capital Funchal – just without the forcing part.

View from Cable Car in Madeira

This being my first food festival I’m unable to compare it to any other experience, but I was amazed at how creative not only the whole festival was but how imaginative and unusual the chefs’ creations were. Even the concept of Rota das Estrelas is a bit different from what I imagined a food festival to be, for the Stars Route is effectively a travelling festival, with a band of very merry chefs relocating across Portugal for a chain of festival dates throughout 2014 from Madeira, where the festival kicked off at the Cliff Bay hotel to Lisbon, Porto, Cascais, Amarante and other Portuguese towns. And what connects these chefs? Why Michelin Stars of course, hence the name!

Cakes Kitchen Alive Rota das Estrelas Sushi Sardine Box Kitchen Alive

There were also stars to be considered in relation to the location with the Cliff Bay being a five star resorts and so I decided to dig out the heels and two of my finest vintage dresses for the two nights I was attending namely Wine for Food and Kitchen Alive. I made the right decision; food festivals definitely demand a more upmarket dress code than your typical music festival, i.e. this is welly-free zone!

Woman walking past Blandys Wine in Funchal

Wine for Food was held in Blandy’s Wine Lodge, the oldest wine producer in Madeira and the walls lined with wine bottles and cobbles underfoot did a great deal to add a cosy atmosphere to a bustling event with chef stations dotted around a series of rooms. We were invited to meet the chefs at work, pick up a dish of whatever they were concocting and then fill our glasses with the wine that had been chosen to perfectly accompany the food. So far, so good!


One of the features of this night was the presence of “Portugal’s Wine Ladies” a cooperative of women who work in Portugal’s wine industry and they were the ones tasked with suiting wines to each of the chef’s dishes, which from my research (ahem!) they did very, very well.

Blandys Wine Madeira Caviar Chefs at Rota das Estrelas Dessert Blandys Rota das Estrelas Madeira

Two nights later, the Kitchen Alive night took this buffet style dining to another level by opening up the kitchen, plonking a DJ in the centre of it and inviting guests to come, stand (or dance!) and watch the chefs at work at the stainless steel counters you never normally see when you step into a restaurant.

Chef at Kitchen Alive

Chef Cooking Scallops

Outside live jazz music kept the rhythm right for sampling a variety of foods in the main restaurant area and in the lobby area I sipped pink champagne while listening to two Portuguese guitar players serenade me swishing from one chef’s station to another.

Dessert Kitchen Alive Food and Dry Ice Kitchen Alive Music Kitchen Alive One of Portugal's Wine Ladies Rota das Estrelas Couscous

So,did I manage to get answers to my questions? Read on to find out…

Why do people go to food festivals?

Primarily, to eat good food! And to drink good wine. I really do think it’s that simple and you know what? I can get along with that…

Chefs at Rota das Estrelas

There is also the bonus of watching the chefs in action, asking them questions, discovering new flavours and flavour combinations and the opportunity to spend an evening in an opulent and atmospheric location. What’s not to like?

Do you need to be a “foodie” to appreciate them?

No, thank goodness. Compared to the average person at Rota das Estrelas I had very limited knowledge about all things culinary but that didn’t stop me enjoying the experience. If anything, I possibly enjoyed it more as I walked around the room wide-eyed and inquisitive. I didn’t know that truffle oil suited cured ham so well, I was educated on how red wine can be used to make pink Champagne and I had no idea that there were many types of flowers out there you can actually eat. Imagine discovering that for the first time! Fantastic!

Sushi at Rota das Estrelas

That said, my favourite dishes were those I already loved and was also those that were the most simple. At the first event in Blandy’s Wine Lodge, my favourite dish was the veal and mashed potato – the chef’s words! – and the station I found myself going back to again and again at Kitchen Alive was that manned by Paolo Marais, Portugal’s number one sushi chef and it’s fair to say  that I’ve long called sushi one of my favourite foods.

Veal and Chef Rota das Estrelas

Do you need to be a wannabe Masterchef to really understand the dishes being prepared?

No. Thank goodness, again. While I enjoy cooking I have neither the steady hands or the creative mind to call myself a wannabe chef. Instead, I enjoy cooking the dishes I like and occasionally experimenting with a recipe or two from my Jamie Oliver cookbook (I can imagine all the chefs I met in Madeira now shake their heads).

The Stars Route Madeira

At Rota das Estrelas I learned that there are some techniques, some skills and some terminologies that I will never understand when it comes to food and gastronomy, but I have grown confident that I can always trust my eyes, nose and taste buds to tell me what I like and for someone attending a food festival, that’s all you need. That and a few juggling skills to balance your plate, your wine glass and your camera in your two hands.

Are food festivals worth the price tag?

Yes, I think so. Or at least I can only speak for the Rota das Estrelas which I felt was great value for money. If you really tried hard you could easily have eaten food worth three times as much as the ticket price and that’s not including the wine and Champagne that flowed freely. Not that I recommend you do this; that could get very messy.

At Rota das Estrelas

Do all chefs really swear like Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen?

No, not at all. The chefs I spoke to at Rota das Estrelas were polite, calm and very friendly.

Interviewing Portuguese Chef

Was I disappointed in the lack of eff-ing and jeff-ing? Possibly a little bit, but it the laughing and smiling was certainly better suited to the sophisticated mood of the event.

Taking Photos with the Chefs

So,  will I be adding more food festivals to my list of mud-free festivals? Yes, I think so. Thanks to Rota das Estrelas I tried my first oyster, ate probably over $100 worth of caviar, ate the best sushi in Portugal and almost managed to get on first name terms with the man from Pommery Champagne. So, if  that’s what a food festival is all about, well, sign me up for the next!

Eating Sushi At Rota das Estrelas


This post was written by Frankie Thompson who was a Travelette from 2012 – 2015. Originally from London, UK, Frankie was nomadic for several years before settling in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she lives with her Australian partner and baby boy. She spends her time buying vintage dresses, riding a rusty old bike around the canals and writing books inspired by her travels. Frankie blogs about travel, writing and motherhood at As the Bird flies blog.